What is insomnia?
If you’ve ever experienced night after night of poor sleep, you don’t have to ask “what is insomnia?” You know exactly what it is and how negatively your life is impacted because of it. Insomnia disorders are characterized by the inability to fall asleep or the inability to stay asleep at night, and it is the very opposite of a fun time. Experiencing chronis insomnia is more than just being super tired; it’s a tiredness that goes so deep it spills over into everything you do.
Your work life, social life, and romantic life suffer and everything just seems harder when you don’t have the energy for even the simplest tasks. Though there are multiple different types of insomnia, the two main types are acute and chronic. Experiencing a few nights of sleeplessness is fairly normal, especially if you are going through any major life changes such as surgery, a breakup, a new job, etc. A short period of insomnia is called acute insomnia. But if symptoms of insomnia persist for longer than a few weeks, you may be suffering from chronic insomnia.
The key symptoms of chronis insomnia, as mentioned above, include the inability to fall asleep, the inability to stay asleep, or both. Symptoms of insomnia disorders may also include depression, anxiety, not feeling well-rested upon waking, irritability, raised levels of stress and/or cortisol in the body, Excessive Daytime Sleepiness, racing thoughts especially at night, anxiety around sleep, lack of concentration during the day, among other symptoms. Symptoms of insomnia in children are similar but may manifest more apparently in behavior issues at school, poor grades, or inability to focus.
What causes insomnia?
Asking “what is insomnia?” is an extremely valid question. It’s something that we all know the answer to offhand (“it’s when you can’t sleep!”), but the reasons behind it are as individual as the (not) sleeper. Insomnia may rear its ugly head for a variety of different reasons, and more often than not the causes of chronic insomnia are from more than just one thing. Typically there are multiple factors coming into play if you’re experiencing symptoms of insomnia. Read on to learn more about potential causes.
Worrying about not sleeping
If you have difficulties around sleep, it’s going to be something that is present in your mind, especially right when it’s bedtime and your feelings of sleeplessness are starting to creep in yet again. If you find yourself awake at night worrying, “do I have insomnia?”, you may be suffering from anxiety and insomnia.
Anxiety, stress, and depression
Anxiety and insomnia go hand-in-hand, along with increased levels of stress and increased risk of depression. When you’re sleep-deprived, it is more difficult for your body to regulate normal levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, making it much easier for you to experience anxiety induced insomnia, depression, or stress.
Menopause may a huge factor in developing symptoms of insomnia. Hot flashes are the biggest culprit, but sleep apnea, night sweats, and restless leg syndrome may all be menopausal symptoms that disrupt your sleep.
Many love having that night cap to help them doze off at night, but studies show that alcohol may be contributing to your sleeplessness, rather than aiding it.
Medical problems or illness
Reasons for insomnia may be due to an accompanying illness, which is why it is important to talk to a doctor if your insomnia persists for longer than 1-2 weeks.
Disruptions in circadian rhythm
Sometimes, reasons for insomnia are due to a disruption in your body’s circadian rhythm, or what may be commonly referred to as your “body clock”.
Trauma, mood disorders, or other psychological struggles may lead to symptoms of insomnia or accompanying insomnia disorders.
A change in hormones or if you are undergoing any sort of hormone therapy may result in a change of your body’s natural sleeping rhythms
Some medication, especially if you take more than one, may interact in a way that may contribute to your causes of insomnia.
If it seems like you’ve tried everything and you’re still experiencing night after night of no sleep, it may be time to consider discussing potential sleep disorders with your doctor. Though difficult to diagnose, sleep disorders are not all that uncommon, and may be what’s been keeping you up at night.
Health risks of insomnia
Common sense tells us that a night of no sleep is terrible for our physical and mental well-being. The more nights we spend staring at the clock or fruitlessly counting sheep, the more we put ourselves at risk of myriad diseases and disorders such as anxiety induced insomnia, depression, and high blood pressure. Experiencing symptoms of insomnia over an extended period of time may also increase your risk of things such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, heart attack, and stroke. Catching those zzz’s is literally vital to your health.
Tips on how to deal with Sleep Maintenance Insomnia
Sleep maintenance insomnia is more common in women during mid-life than men, and is characterized by difficulty staying asleep, especially waking up too early and having trouble falling back asleep. Sleep maintenance insomnia is more common during midlife due to a variety of different factors including increased stressors in life (i.e. children entering college, financial stress in regards to retirements savings), menopause, and increased risk for health problems. If you’re wondering how to stop insomnia symptoms, look no further.
The following is a list of strategies we’ve compiled to help sufferers of sleep maintenance insomnia find that deep, peaceful, blissed-out sleep they’ve been missing.
Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, and cool
Use blackout curtains, turn the thermostat down, and turn off the TV. Your bedroom is meant to be your sleep sanctuary, so shut out any potential distractions from that goal.
Turn off all screens at least an hour before bed
We’ve heard it again and again but this may be one of the most difficult habits to kick. The blue light from our screens (phones, TVs, tablets, laptops, etc.) mess with our body. The bright blue lights simulate the sun, which sends a signal to our brain that it’s time to be awake. Try out a screen curfew of at least one hour (or two if you’ve really been struggling with sleeplessness) before bed. It may take some adjusting but your body will thank you in the long run.
Stick to a regular sleep schedule
When you go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day and night, you’re creating a pretty powerful habit. Our bodies run off of consistency and routine. Make it much easier to feel tired at night by creating a pattern of the same bedtime and wake time each day.
Exercising moderately on a daily basis
Similar to the point above, exercising consistently is another way to ensure that our bodies are staying regulated. Exercise is a cornerstone to our overall health, and if we’re skimping on this important step, the rest of our wellbeing will suffer.
Sleep debt is what our bodies build throughout a day of activities, and it is important to a healthy sleep life. Lessening this sleep debt with an afternoon nap may impede our ability to feel properly sleepy at night.
Avoid Caffeine and alcohol
A seemingly perfect combination of stimulant and depressant, one lifts you up in the morning and one brings you down at night, caffeine and alcohol may seem like quick liquid fixes to symptoms of insomnia. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Both caffeine and alcohol negatively affect your sleep life, and are better off avoided when attempting to curb symptoms of insomnia.
Diuretics are any sort of food or drug that will make you have to use the bathroom more than normal. To avoid unwanted nighttime bathroom interruptions, avoid these foods/drugs.
Avoid drinking too many liquids
Your reasons for insomnia may unknowingly be related to small lifestyle habits that may be easy to change. Similar to the point above, drinking too many liquids too close to bedtime may mean multiple midnight trips to the bathroom. Try cutting out liquids one to two hours before bed and see if your midnight urges persist.
Avoid big evening meals
It’s tempting to indulge in a large, delicious meal, and immediately pass out afterwards like you might during the holidays (Thanksgiving turkey, anyone?) This is not the best idea, however, for those wondering how to fight insomnia. Your body needs time to properly digest its food while you are still awake and while it won’t disrupt your sleep life. Along with a screen curfew and liquid curfew, try to have a meal curfew of about one to two hours before bedtime.
Use the bedroom only for sleeping and sex
Again, our brains our powerful when it comes to habits, routines, and associations. If you are doing anything stressful in your room, (work, watching scary movies, watching the news), your brain will start to associate your bedroom with these emotions, and it will be much more difficult to wind down for a night of rest.
Move bedroom clocks out of view
Watching the clock is another temptation, but this may add to nighttime anxieties. Move all clocks out of view and, if you usually wear your watch to bed, take it off and put it out of reach.
Get out of bed when you can’t sleep
Instead of just laying there and ruminating on how much you’re not sleeping, try getting up and changing your surroundings. It may help to read a book or do something else relaxing, like making a cup of tea. Sometimes your mind needs a subtle distraction in order to wind down from the day.
What to do when insomnia keeps you up in the middle of the night
Those suffering from insomnia may find that meditating is an extremely useful tool that may help lower your levels of stress and anxiety, especially when it comes to sleep. There are plenty of guided meditation apps, podcasts, or YouTube videos that can be found on the internet that may help guide you into sleep. Otherwise, simply focusing on your breath, especially slow, deep breathing, is extremely beneficial in lowering your heart rate and relaxing your body and mind. Instead of counting sheep, try counting your breathing.
The 4-7-8 method is popular for helping aid the transition into sleep. When it comes down to it, it’s important to establish a regular relaxing nighttime routine that works for you in order to help you wind down and get your body primed for a dreamy night.
When to see a doctor about insomnia
If your symptoms of insomnia last more than a few weeks and you consistently wonder, “do I have insomnia?”, it may be time to talk to your doctor. Especially if you are experiencing symptoms such as falling asleep while driving, difficulty staying awake during resting activities (reading, watching TV, etc.), difficulty concentrating, or poor memory.
Keeping a sleep diary may be one of the best ways to keep track of your sleep life and habits. This will help immensely when trying to pinpoint potential reasons for your insomnia, and will also help if you decide that it’s time to see your doctor.
Diagnosis and treatment of Insomnia
No definitive test for insomnia exists but your doctor may ask you to keep a sleep log in order to better understand how your insomnia is affecting your life. You may also be asked to take part in an overnight sleep study, blood tests, and other questionnaires to craft a treatment that works best for you
Treatment for insomnia may inclue a suggestion of numerous lifestyle changes, depending on your daily habits, sleeping pills to use as needed, and/or behavioral therapy.
Behavioral treatment for insomnia
Behavioral treatment may be a better option for those with all different types of insomnia wanting to opt out of any prescription sleeping pills. CBT-I or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia, is known to be one of the most effective treatments for symptoms of insomnia. With this sort of therapy, those suffering from insomnia are taught to control worrying thoughts around sleep along with other helpful tests, lifestyle suggestions, and sometimes biofeedback.
The tests and questionnaires that a therapist may have you fill out could help you discover the answer to your question, “do I have insomnia?”. A therapist will also help you discover whether anxiety and insomnia are linked (if you have anxiety induced insomnia or vice versa or any others insomnia disorders), which of the different types of insomnia you suffer from, among other potential reasons for insomnia.